Karma, Solidarity, and the Bad Part of the Review I Wrote for You

This topic has been brewing in my brain for a while now. A while back Roni Loren wrote a blog post called Book Review Debate in which she explained why she didn’t write bad reviews for books and why maybe other authors should consider not doing so either. There was a great debate that followed in the comments (which unfortunately seem to have been lost in a blog conversion.)

I agreed with her points, namely:

1. The writing world is SMALL. 
The writer you one-star today may be the writer…sitting next to you at your next writers’ meeting, may one day share an agent/editor/publisher with you, may be someone you have to do a workshop with, may be someone who’s asked to blurb your book, etc.

A lot of the commenters disagreed with the stance as a whole, saying it lacked integrity not to give a negative review if you thought a book was bad. But it occurred to me that, in light of the above, posting a bad review as an author, is a bit like posting job reviews of your co-workers on the announcement board and signing your name to it. Sure, you’re owning your opinion, but you’re probably shooting yourself in the foot too. And for what? If they’re a bad employee, your one personal opinion isn’t the only thing that will clue others in to this. Let their boss, their clients, etc., be the ones to point this out, not you as a person who may have to work with them on an important project.

And yet, as my blog has evolved, I find myself writing more and more reviews. Why? Quite simply because having guest judges for 5MinuteFiction ties in so well with promoting a fellow author. But I’m not going to promote someone unless I know what I’m promoting. Which means I read their book. And we all know that reviews on the major sites where readers make their purchasing decisions (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads, etc.) is the lifeblood of new-author promotion. So if I’ve read the book, and can give it a good review, then it’d just be selfish and shortsighted of me not to do so, right?

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s the not-so-good things about the book.

See, I review self-published books more than anything else. And I don’t care who you are, unless you were insanely lucky and snagged a great editor and the perfect crit-partners for yourself the first time around, your book will have problems. In my experience, the right editor and crit-partners are generally things you find after you’ve run through a few of the wrong ones. And that means putting yourself out there.

I found mine through the process of querying agents and small publishers. I had to expose my work to enough people over a long enough period of time, that I finally made those connections. That’s not the only path, but most people aren’t going to find the right team until they’ve survived the wrong one, which for self-published authors, often means after their first book is already out.

So I have your book and I really enjoyed it. I want to write you a good review because that’s what I’d want you to do for me and because you deserve it.

BUT

Do I ignore the weaknesses, pretend I didn’t see them, and write only about the good stuff?

I don’t think I can. For a lot of reasons.

  • I usually don’t trust reviews like that anyway, especially if they’re an unknown author self-publishing and all they have are glowing reviews. I’m pretty much going to assume that all the reviews are written by friends and family and I can’t trust them to give the whole truth.
  • Is anybody else going to tell you? If not, how will you know in order to improve the next time? Granted, this one can be handled by offering private comments, which I almost always do.

BUT

  • I’m also putting my own professional name and reputation behind your book if I give it a good review.

And, here’s where it may get selfish, but I don’t want other authors and readers thinking I can’t tell good writing from bad. I may have enjoyed your book in spite of the cringe-worthy flood of adverbs and telling, because the plot, or character development, or whatever was just that good. Another person may not have the tolerance to handle that and may throw the book away in disgust and then resent me for leading them to believe that it had no major faults.

Neal Hock wrote a great guest post on The Writing Bomb that talked about the author risking their reputation by self-publishing a book with glaring errors or weaknesses. I 100% agree with this. But I think it goes farther than this. I think it risks my reputation too if I don’t at least acknowledge that, while I recommend the read, it does have drawbacks that one reader might consider a deal-breaker even if another doesn’t care that much about them. At least I’m giving them the information, as I see it, to make an honest assessment and informed decision.

To a lesser extent, a post by Chuck Wendig, Putting the Publishing Cart Before The Storytelling Horse, made me think of this topic. In a large part because the authors who are loudly denouncing the publishing industry from experience, and claiming that anyone not self-publishing is making a terrible error, are ones who have already gotten to the point at which they have a quality editor and the industry know-how and writing chops that their self-published works won’t have this kind of problem.

Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about typos and poor grammar. Quite frankly, I won’t finish a book that’s an egregious offender in those areas to have a review to write of it.

But if on the balance sheet I think your book was a good read, and you’re a good writer who will quit making those mistakes eventually, I want to help you promote it! I want to review it and tell others to read it.

But I have a career to think about too.

Thus my conundrum. Is it important as authors to maintain your professional integrity and list the bad with the good? Is it not important enough to readers or worth it for you and you should pretend the bad isn’t there? Should you just not write reviews at all? What do you think?

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12 Responses to Karma, Solidarity, and the Bad Part of the Review I Wrote for You

  1. Roni Loren says:

    Thanks for linking to me and yes, the comments were lost when Intense Debate gave me issues and I had to switch to Disqus. :(

    But yes, this is a tough spot to be in. I’m a person who is TERRIBLE at lying, like I’m almost incapable of it. So just focusing on the good and not mentioning the bad is not something I can do. This along with the creating awkwardness when you run into the person is why I have stopped writing negative reviews. If I don’t like a book, I won’t lie and say I did, I just don’t say anything. I’ve had a number of did not finish books this year and I just move on. If I love a book, I will tell anyone who will listen about it. I don’t fault anyone who wants to do the negative reviews too, it’s just smart to be aware of the potential consequences and to decide if they are worth it.
    Roni Loren recently posted..Fill-Me-In FridayMy Profile

  2. Mike says:

    It is quite possible to be both honest and tactful. As writers we are all (I would hope) aware that how you say something is at least as important as what you say. I would agree that a review that is completely one-sided, to either side, is not to be trusted and that it is a matter of both personal and professional integrity to be honest in our reviews.

    I personally would argue that the only time you shouldn’t review a book is if you’ve nothing at all good to say about it. This is similar to the rule that you shouldn’t argue with stupid people on the internet – it’s really just a waste of time. I would further say that if you are going to review a book you should give your honest opinion and discuss both merits and demerits as warranted. Just make sure you are being honest and not snarky or mean (it is sometimes hard to see the line).

    If a writer, especially a new writer, is of such a fragile disposition that they can’t handle a fair and balanced review that includes some negativity, they probably weren’t meant for this business anyway.
    Mike recently posted..NaNoWriMo: A November to RememberMy Profile

  3. Jaimie says:

    I have been thinking about this so much lately. A timely post. I left a 4 star review of my good writer friend’s book on Amazon, and she hasn’t even mentioned it to me. The problem is, no one else has reviewed it! She’s probably annoyed, but honestly, I didn’t think the book was 5 stars.

    And now I’m dealing with another situation where I know this writer won’t want me to leave an honest review, period. The book is just that problematic. (*aware that either of these writers might read this*) I’m not sure what to do, but I think I’ll just give her/him my feedback privately.

    It sucks because these books are already published and yet you feel they could have used another round (or two) of editing.

    I love what you said about thinking of your fellow writers as co-workers. It’s as awkward to leave a bad review, yes, but in a way it’s awkward to leave a good review! Co-workers shouldn’t be in the business of reviewing each other. Just keeping their head down and working.
    Jaimie recently posted..No moreMy Profile

  4. @Roni: Exactly. Do our don’t, but better be aware of the consequences.
    @Mike: Great point. Not like my criticism will be the only they’ll ever get if they’re going to be a writer. And that’s a difficult line for me, to not sound snarky or mean, because I’m a pretty sarcastic, snarky person in life. It comes across often much more mean-spirited than I intend it. So I worry about that.
    @Jaimie: I know that’s part of what makes it difficult: when you know these people.

    It occurs to me that part of why this troubles me is that I’ve had it come back and bite me. And since I often am acquainted with these authors before I write the review, because they’ve judged 5MinuteFiction for me, it’s different than it being a random review. One author contacted me afterward and said the criticism hurt more coming from someone he “knew.”
    Leah Petersen recently posted..Review – Citadel: First Colony by J. Kevin TumlinsonMy Profile

  5. RBWood says:

    Leah-

    I agree with you and believe it’s a tough call. From my perspective, if I read something and I know it will get less than 3 stars when i review it, I let the writer know I won’t be publishing a review and exactly why. The responses have been varied: From “Thank you for all the feedback” and a much better second attempt that I happily review, to “Why don’t you go outside and play hide-and-go-f*ck yourself.”

    Anything less than a 4 star review (3 – 3.5) I send the same message, willing to publish the review with that rating, but I give them the choice.

    Bottom line: be honest. Give the writer in question an opportunity to decline to have the review published if it’s a less than steller story.

    My two cents.

    RBW
    RBWood recently posted..The Prodigal’s Foole TrailerMy Profile

  6. This explains precisely why I don’t write reviews, but I will do “book recommendations.” If I find a book I love, I will share it with my blog readers and on review sites. I no longer take requests to do reviews (I get a LOT of authors sending me their books with review requests–oftentimes out of the blue.)

    The beginning of the end was when one woman I quite liked got angry at a 4 star review I left her, and she complained, “You didn’t like my book more than you liked Twilight?!?!?” (The weird thing about that is that I’ve never read Twilight, much less reviewed it, but the idea that she would get so irate about 4 stars that she’d go read my book list to see what I supposedly liked better than her book… well, our relationship definitely cooled after that.)

    I just feel like it’s not my job to criticise people who are, like me, trying their best to make a living at a difficult artistic pursuit. There are plenty of critics out there, and I don’t feel the need to join their ranks (although their role is necessary and important.)
    India Drummond recently posted..Spellchecker Brings The FunnyMy Profile

  7. I’ve thought a lot about this myself, and asked others at critique groups and writer conferences how they felt about it. Everyone seems to be just as confused as I am on how to handle this situation.

    There are a few books I’ve read, published by reputable publishers (big 6 even) that I hated. One I loathed so vehemently I would’ve thrown the book at the wall if I hadn’t read it on my Kindle. I couldn’t stop telling everyone how much I hated it. But I didn’t leave a bad review online. WHAT IF I meet this woman some day? How awkward would that be?

    I don’t have the any problem with reviews when I like a book. I will make note of any areas for improvement, but I try to be positive with my criticism. I see that as advice to aid in the author’s growth. As a writer myself, I would want people to do the same for me. I don’t want falsely positive reviews if my readers really don’t like it.

    BUT OMG DID YOU READ THAT TERRIBLE BOOK I READ? I need a venting room just to get that off my chest. Maybe I’ll make an online hangout site where you can vent about awful books and the threads get deleted immediately after you end the conversation so no poor awful author gets hurt.
    Sarah E Olson (@saraheolson) recently posted..Terrible Minds Flash Fiction Challenge: Five Words, Plus One VampireMy Profile

  8. I have to agree with Mike on this one. I think that it’s important that we, as writers reviewing our fellows, to be honest. However, we also need to be tactful. Honest criticism is just as important as honest praise. I’m going to be reviewing a book coming up on my blog (Mr. R.B. Wood’s, as a matter of fact), and I had this big fear when I first got my ARC. What if I don’t like it? What if I feel the book is utter crap? In this case, the answer was simple. As this review would be done as part of his promotion for the book, I wouldn’t publish any bad review of the book. Thankfully, however, I like the book. So, it’ll be getting a great review from me. But, that said, I’m not going to shy away from pointing out the parts I felt were week. However, as Mr. Wood himself has said, my plan there is simple. I will send him a copy of my review before publishing it to my website. This is, after all, a promotion for him, and I want to make sure he approves of my review before posting it.

    Basically, my thought goes like this. If I am not willing to tell the author to his face (virtual face, even) that his book is bad, I’m not going to publish it, either on my site or on another site (Amazon or Goodreads). That said, when writing a good review, I’m not going to shy away from areas I think are weak, either. I, as a reader, appreciate those reviews the best, because I feel they are the most honest.

    My two cents.
    Chris Blanchard recently posted..Friday Flash Fiction: Planets for SaleMy Profile

  9. Oh, I have so been there. I have learned my lessons.

    Story number one: Many years ago, a newspaper asked me to review a memoir by a queer writer with a disability (disability culture — especially queer crip culture — being kinda my thang). I loved the book. I gave what I thought was an overwhelmingly positive review. I did mention one aspect of the book that felt more unfinished than the rest, relating to abuse the author had experienced, and said something to the effect that it was probably too painful to delve into as much as the other themes. That was over 15 years ago, and that writer has never responded to any overtures I’ve made since. The queer crip culture writing community is not huge, so it seems like if there wasn’t a problem, we could probably have had a positive interaction by now. I don’t know for a fact that that’s the reason, but I got a sense, after my review came out, that I had pissed this writer off.

    Story number two: A local paper asked me to interview two local cartoonists, one of them syndicated. (I used to dabble in cartooning.) I was thrilled. I interviewed them, got what I considered a “scoop” on the syndicated one, which was awesome (she came out to me as a lesbian, and since I’m a lesbian, too, and apparently other journalists had refused to include that in their reviews, I was excited to be the one to help her come out). I kept to my word limit and handed in my story. The story came out. It had been edited by the newspaper (for length, it seemed). The way they edited it suggested that the cartoonist was ashamed of being a lesbian! Augh! The cartoonist called me, very, very angry, and probably hurt, because she’d trusted me. And seeing as we live in a small community, that made some situations very awkward later on.

    The moral of the of these stories, for me, is 1. I will probably never do a book review again, unless I can only say entirely positive things about the book, and 2. when I conduct interviews, I either have complete control over the editorial process or I work with an editor I know very well and can trust not to alter the meaning of the content.
    Sharon Wachsler recently posted..Disabled Writers Need Not SubmitMy Profile

  10. Stephanie says:

    I understand the dilemma and wish I’d thought of it before. For me, when reading a book and offering a review, I never thought about it coming back to bite me. My whole idea or reasoning or whatever was that it was my opinion and I was offering my opinion and I wanted to be honest. I love to read. I love to read reviews before I pick up a book (sometimes) because I have such limited time to do the things I love. I don’t want to waste my time on something known to be problematic or just plain awful. I don’t write the review to pick on the author (or to kiss up to him/her either). I write the review to help other readers determine for themselves whether or not to spend their time reading it or not.

    I recently read an ARC for a book which the publisher (big one) was really pushing. It was my first ARC to receive and review. I was stoked…until I started reading it. When I found myself preferring to do dishes/laundry/picking up dog crap over reading and accumulating a $12 late fee at my library for all the unread books waiting for me to complete the ARC, I decided to quit (which I never do…well, now I have to say rarely do). I wrote a review the day before the book was released because that was the understanding for my receipt of the book and I didn’t sugarcoat my dislike for the book.

    I’ve rated other books with a 1 star before too if I genuinely didn’t care for it, but I try to explain my reasons. My real issue with rating is this…EVERYONE HAS A DIFFERENT IDEA FOR NUMBER VALUE! Goodreads is: 5=amazing, 4=really liked it, 3=liked it, 2=ok, 1=didn’t like it. I hate having to rate anything. 2/5 is an okay book. Not every book is for every reader. Does that make it bad? Not necessarily. You have to read the meat&potatoes of the review and not just the wine it’s served with. I mean, What if your spouse asked you to rate them? What would you say? What scale would you use? I’d totally go with Goodreads. Honey, you’re a 5 all the way. BUT try a 1-10 scale using images media provides as your scale. 10=God’s gift to women, the next Brad Pitt; 9=Hot stuff, this vamps got bite, um…Rob Patterson, watch out; 8=Sexy, but try on Johnny Depp’s pirate costume please; 7=beautiful, a little plastic surgery and you too can look like fellow pirate/elf Orlando Bloom; 6=doable, you are George Clooney after all, even if you are 50 now; 5=you look like everyone else, just an average Joe; (I won’t even attempt to find names for these) 4=slightly less than average but thank gawd you’re not a 3; 3=you poor thing, thank gawd for pity sex; 2=oh my, paper bag it and maybe will have a go; 1=you will die a virgin.

    Now it’s your turn. Rate my comment from 1 to 10, 1=I made you wish you could poke your eye out, 10=I made you want to have babies with me. You decide what the middle numbers mean. Yeah. Um, 5?

  11. Starr says:

    I agree with @RBWood, if your review will have a significantly negative aspect to it, I’d contact the writer first to give them a heads up and a chance to decline the review (assuming the author requested you review the book).

    As an academic librarian who’s written reviews of academic books for professional journals, I see even fiction reviews from the same lens. My job as a librarian is to lay out the book with honesty, tact (read: respect), and professionalism, for other professionals who are 1) too busy to read everything, 2) need to know the main point of the book, and 3) if it’s good enough & relevant enough to their needs/interests for them to read. My duty is to the potential reader first, and I owe them my honesty.

    But even if it’s the worst book on earth, and I’ve been contractually obligated by a journal (with the treat of a free book in exchange for a book review) to write a review, that doesn’t mean I can’t be respectful. Pointing out flaws or personal problems with books doesn’t have to attack the author, and if written well, even a negative review could help someone else decide to read the book. If I say, “I thought this book was about assessment but it only talks about statistical analyses of assessments,” that may clue someone else in that this is the book they need.

    Granted, fiction is different–but again, as a librarian my job is to inform people about the book’s content, style, etc. As a writer, this is harder when I have a personal relationship with the author, which is why I don’t generally write professional reviews of such works. A shout-out on my blog or twitter feed, sure. Perhaps a review on my blog, with a note that I know the author–but again, if I have a lot of negative things to say, I’ll just not review it on my blog and let the author know I’m not comfortable with it. Sometimes books are great, but just not my cup of tea–mine probably aren’t their cup of tea, either. It’s okay! :)
    Starr recently posted..Weekend PlanningMy Profile

  12. I’m clearly not the only person who’s had this problem. ;) It’s really the I’m-an-author-too-now angle that troubles me these days. I never had a problem writing a negative review before. ;)
    Leah Petersen recently posted..Review – Citadel: First Colony by J. Kevin TumlinsonMy Profile

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